As Paul and Barnabas moved into new territory they evangelized the Gentiles directly. After the initial contact in a town at the synagogue, the work of evangelism focused on the Gentiles of the community. The church was expanding into areas where the Jewish Christians would not have naturally seen as their “mission field.” As Gentiles accepted Christ and began to fellowship with ethnic Jews, some problems arose primarily concerning the Gentiles not keeping of the Law. By Acts 15 enough Gentiles have accepted Jesus as messiah and savior that some Jewish Christians in Jerusalem argue they ought to start keeping the Law, beginning with circumcision but food taboos (implied from decision in Acts 15:24-29; but see also the situation in Galatians 2:1-11-15).
We know from Acts 10 that Peter was instructed by the Lord to preach the gospel to Cornelius, a Roman Centurion and God-Fearer. Peter was hesitant to do so, and after he returns to Jerusalem the Jewish Christians there question Peter closely about why he had entered into the house of a Gentile. Peter appears to have understood that salvation was moving into the Gentile world. But Paul was doing more than preaching to God-Fearers in the synagogues who were keeping most of the Law in the first place. He was preaching the gospel to Gentiles and telling them that they did not have to keep the Law in order to be saved. This means that they did not have to worry about Jewish food laws or circumcision, two of the most fundamental boundary markers for the Jew in the first century.
Until Paul reached out to Sergius Paulus in Cyprus, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. People who were accepting Jesus in Jerusalem (and even Antioch) were not rejecting the Law. They remained fully “Jewish” in every sense other than they believed the resurrected Jesus is the Messiah.T hey appear to have maintained ritual purity as they always had, they ate only clean foods, and they continued the practice of circumcision for converts to the faith. This conflict In Acts 15 between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church. The issue appears in several of Paul’s letters (Galatians primarily, but it is also found in 1 Corinthians, Colossians; Romans 9-11 deals with the problem of the Jews in the current age).
Acts 15:1 indicates some people came from Jerusalem to Antioch and said “unless you are circumcised according to the customs taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This means a Gentile God-fearer like Cornelius must fully convert to Judaism in order to be a real follower of Jesus. This group of Jewish Christians are usually called the Judaizers, although scholars working on Galatians call them “the agitators” or simply “Paul’s opponents.” Since Galatians implies these opponents were sent by the Jerusalem community, some scholars call them the “men from James” (Gal 2:11-12, sometimes using the modifier “allegedly”).
From the book of Galatians it is clear Paul told his Gentile converts they ought not submit to circumcision since they were not under the old covenant. In fact, there is neither Jew nor Gentile in this new age. Gentiles were not converting to a form of Judaism, nor are Jews rejecting Judaism and becoming Gentiles. For Paul, what is happen is something new and radical, God is accepting both Jew and Gentile by faith apart from the works of the Law. (See this post on whether Galatians was written before or after Acts 15). The relationship between Paul’s Galatian opponents and the “certain men” who traveled to Antioch to tell Gentiles circumcision was required is complicated; for now it is important to observe there are some Jewish believers in Jesus who understand this new movement as a kind of reform movement within Second Temple Judaism and not a new religion.
In his commentary on Acts, Darrell Bock makes the excellent observation that this “council” ought to be called a “consultation” since it is not like the later church councils which decide doctrine for the church. This is quite true, although (in my view) Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not take his teaching that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law to Jerusalem in order to be approved by the apostolic community. He does not argue his case and accept the will of the apostolic community. Rather, Paul reports what it is that God has been doing and the “Judiazers” appear accept Paul’s position on the issue.
What is at stake in the Jerusalem Council? We know the Jerusalem community agrees with Paul that Gentiles ought to be free from the “yoke of the Law” as Peter puts it (15:16), but there are some issues which will cause friction in Christian communities with both Jewish and Gentile believers. What are the implications for Paul’s mission if the Jerusalem community disagreed with his law-free Gospel for the Gentiles?